Online but joyous: Yalies celebrate Holy Week and Easter Sunday
Leaders of Yale’s churches spoke to the News about highlights of this past Holy Week and their preparations for Easter Sunday services, which were predominantly held online this year.
As spring has sprung in New Haven, many Yalies are enjoying more than just the daffodils scattering campus — the beginning of April has also been filled with preparations and celebrations for Holy Week and Easter.
Celebrations and services were held mainly virtually in the University Church, the Episcopal Church at Yale, Trinity on the Green and Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Chapel and Center. Chaplains, reverends and directors of Yale’s churches spoke with the News about their Holy Week events commemorating Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
The University Church at Yale
Reverend Ian Oliver, pastor of the University Church in Yale and senior associate chaplain for Protestant life, spoke about UCY’s fully virtual services on Zoom and how they have compared to those of last year.
“Easter last year felt really joyous — to affirm that we could still gather, even virtually, and sing ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today’ and hear the Easter message of hope again, even at that moment when everything was so uncertain,” Oliver said. “This year we’ve had a year’s experience to build on, and it feels much calmer.”
Last Easter was just three weeks into the first pandemic-caused lockdown, which has left Battell Chapel — where the nondenominational UCY holds services — closed for public gathering ever since. Oliver told the News that services were pre-recorded from March until August and subsequently transitioned to live Zoom meetings with pre-recorded music by their student choir.
During Holy Week, UCY hosted Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday services, as well as a Good Friday Tenebrae Service, that were adapted for Zoom. For the Tenebrae service, seven students, each in their remote location, read a section of the Passion story from the Gospel of John and blew out a candle or darkened their room. A prayer written by Yale Divinity School intern Natalie Benson concluded the service.
“We miss being together, singing together, taking Communion in person, and just being in Battell Chapel and hearing the organ,” Oliver said. “But we’ve been amazed that a large chunk of our regular congregation has kept coming to online services for the whole year … and we’ve been joined by alumni, students and parents from across the country and around the world.”
Saint Thomas More
At Saint Thomas More, Holy Week events were largely online — STM held livestream liturgies for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. One exception was the Easter Vigil, which took place Saturday night and was attended in person by five churchgoers and four confirmands, or those who are newly confirmed in the Catholic Church, according to Assistant Chaplain Sr. Jenn Schaaf.
Schaff explained that the livestream has allowed STM to pray with their community virtually, while members can email and text greetings and comments on the Facebook live broadcast. This Holy Week’s services, which hosted approximately 500 to 700 viewers for each liturgy, contrasted with the Triduum at the beginning of the pandemic, where celebrations were “stripped to the minimum” and loss was a dominating theme.
“STM is very grateful to have had another successful Triduum and Easter, despite the challenges of the pandemic and social distancing,” said STM Executive Director Joseph Connolly. “We have welcomed hundreds of people to each of our liturgies, both locally and around the world.”
Assistant Chaplain Carlene Demiany told the News that STM missed some traditional rituals this year, such as the foot washing on Holy Thursday and the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. But Stations of the Cross, where members of the community wrote and shared reflections on the Lenten season, as well as a Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion were both able to take place on Friday.
Schaff added that she was impressed by watching the students who have been preparing for baptism, communion and confirmation engage with their faith during this season.
“At a time when many are disengaged, these students are choosing to become more committed to their faith life,” Schaff said. “The resurrection has a different meaning after a year of loss [and] although we are still being cautious and following safety measures, there is more hope and less fear this Easter.”
Chapel leadership at STM also highlighted the singing of the Exsultet — a sung proclamation — at the Easter Vigil by candlelight and the words of Chaplain Fr. Ryan Lerner during the Vigil. The words were particularly meaningful for Assistant Chaplain Allan Esteron, who said that Lerner’s theme of “opening our eyes for signs of the risen Christ” is an appropriate and hopeful reminder during this challenging time.
STM has focused this year’s Easter Sunday on the “importance of witnesses to the resurrection” of Christ, Lerner wrote in an email to the News.
“We believe that what happens on Easter Sunday is not just a story about something that happened over 2000 years ago — not just a doctrine, a philosophy, or code of ethics — but an event that changed the course of humanity and our world,” Lerner wrote. “We are encouraged to seek and celebrate the signs of resurrection and Christ in our midst — especially during times of struggle and uncertainty.”
The Episcopal Church at Yale and Trinity on the Green
The Episcopal Church at Yale and Trinity on the Green also held sermons on the resurrection, with Associate Chaplain of ECY and Associate Rector of Trinity Rev. Heidi Thorsen using clothing in the Gospel of John text to discuss authenticity and rebirth and Chaplain of ECY Rev. Paul Carling speaking about the women who visited Christ’s tomb and their need to “embrace hope in the midst of devastation.”
Carling said ECY has averaged over 40 attendees during Holy Week, and that services have been an outlet for creativity and student designing to combine pre-recorded music with breakout room discussions to make services more participatory, especially without an in-person communion.
ECY also hosted services throughout the week, including a special “Babette’s Feast” on Maundy Thursday, a “feast and film experience” that was better attended than the worship service and allowed students to connect in small group discussions over Zoom.
Trinity’s primary services are also online, but with two in-person opportunities for worship: an 8 a.m. morning prayer service at the church and a 2 p.m. service in Edgerton Park. This year, instead of foot washing on the Green on Maundy Thursday, Trinity hosted an event combined with a vaccine clinic for the community with Cornell Scott Hill Health Center.
“Over 70 people were vaccinated, and we were especially focused on outreach to people who are unhoused and unsheltered, or have other systemic barriers to signing up for the vaccine,” Thorsen said. “This year Cornell Scott Hill still offered some skillful foot care, and Trinity offered socks and other donations … but the real highlight for me was the vaccine clinic, because that’s what ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’ looks like in 2021.”
ECY and Trinity also held a combined Easter Vigil and welcomed other parishes in the area to join as well.
At the vigil, students had video-recorded themselves reading Hebrew Scripture texts in “various natural environments related to the texts themselves — creation, the valley of dry bones, hearts of stone becoming hearts of flesh,” according to Carling. “[It] was incredibly moving, as was their reaffirmation of faith.”
Despite the reminder that this Easter, for the second year in a row, presents a year predominantly without in-person services and filled with loss because of the pandemic, Yale’s Christian communities have approached Easter Sunday with a renewed sense of hope, faith and rebirth.
“I think we are especially aware this year of how much we need resurrection — which is not a return to normal, but rather a step forward into a better reality of mutual caring, health, freedom, and abundant life for everyone,” Thorsen said. “We’re a long way from that reality, but Easter helps us dream.”
Amelia Lower | firstname.lastname@example.org